Is Jameis Winston Worth the Trouble?
A version of this story appears in the Dec. 29 issue of Sports Illustrated.
Don Brown had just spent an hour inside the Boston College defensive film room, dissecting the performance of Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston in their Nov. 22 game in Tallahassee. Brown, 59, has been a college defensive coordinator or a head coach since 1984. He’s been in charge of defenses in the ACC and the Big East for the past six years. Basically, Brown, who coined the “Be a dude” mantra that has popularized Steve Addazio’s program on the recruiting trails, has coached and defended a bunch of dudes in his time.
Brown’s frustration was apparent as he pointed out the array of coverage and pressure packages the Eagles threw at the 2013 Heisman Trophy winner. They didn’t beat themselves that day: just one blown coverage, a few missed tackles and containment problems here and there. Jameis Winston beat them. The 20-year-old redshirt sophomore completed 22 of 32 passes for 281 yards, one touchdown and one interception in a 20–17 victory. It was another close call for the Seminoles, who have won 27 straight games since Winston became the starter in 2013—the last four by five points or less.
But there’s one more play Brown wants to review on his desktop computer before he calls it a night. “Let me see if I can pull it up for you,” he says. “It’s worth seeing.” With help from a coaching intern (football coaches always need assistance with technology), he calls up a play from BC’s 2013 matchup with the ’Noles, Winston’s fourth collegiate start.
“This,” Brown says, sighing, “is the play that broke my heart, because we’re playing our asses off. It’s unbelievable. And he’s unbelievable in the play.”
The camera pans to the Alumni Stadium scoreboard: It’s 17–17 in the second quarter, FSU ball, third-and-five at its own 45-yard line, clock ticking down—:06, :05. . . . The all-22 view shows the Seminoles scrambling to get off one last play.
“On the field there’s something special there,” an AFC general manager says of Winston. “The problem is, can you ever trust him? Are you going to be able to sleep at night? That’s a rough deal with a quarterback.”
They do snap the ball, and Winston drops back to his own 35. Eagles tackle Mehdi Abdesmad, all 6-7 and 278 pounds of him, beats two blockers and screams toward the 6-4, 225-pound Winston. The quarterback shrugs off the would-be sack, moving to his left.
“There’s one,” Brown says. “Now Strizak.”
Winston is off-balance when inside linebacker Mike Strizak gets his shot and grabs the top of the quarterback’s shoulder pads—to no avail. Strizak falls, and Winston scrambles right for room to throw. Eyes downfield, he waves for receiver Kenny Shaw to keep running. As Winston prepares to heave the ball, 6-foot, 249-pound middle linebacker Steven Daniels lines him up.
“Winston’s getting harassed here and drilled,” says Brown as he rewinds each part of the play several times for effect. “Steve Daniels is a big, strong guy. Right here. Watch him. Watch now. Watch what happens to Steve after he hits Winston.”
Having delivered the pass, Winston has his right foot off the ground when Daniels arrives, leading with his right shoulder. The result: Daniels bounces off Winston, reels two feet backward, and winds up on his rear end.
“You see what I’m getting at? That freaking guy,” says Brown. He leans back in his chair, both hands covering his face, as he recalls the 55-yard score that gave FSU a 24–17 lead in a 48–34 victory. “That’s the piece right there that separates him. That right there.”
Winston’s mix of strength, playmaking and toughness is going to present a very big problem in NFL draft rooms, should he, as expected, forgo his final two years of eligibility. There’s so much talent, so much to like—and yet Winston’s off-field behavior is so troubling. A string of incidents ranging from the sophomorically stupid (a civil violation for shoplifting crab legs; questioned by police when a group of Florida State athletes were shooting BB guns in his apartment complex, in which he denied involvement; yelling a lewd phrase from the top of a table in a dining hall) to the soberingly serious (sexual-assault allegations in which Winston was never charged, with some reports indicating that he received preferential treatment from Tallahassee and campus police) means that Winston will be subjected to a predraft background check that will make the scrutiny of Johnny Manziel last year look like a casual glance. Winston will have to persuade owners, general managers and coaches that he can be the face of an NFL franchise and the key to its long-term prosperity.
“Oh, if I needed a quarterback, you bet your ass I’d have boots on the ground in Tallahassee—a lot of them—as soon as he declared for the draft,” says one AFC general manager, who wished to remain anonymous because of the NFL’s rules prohibiting discussion of an early-entry player before he has declared. “Because on the field there’s something special there. The problem is, can you ever trust him? Are you going to be able to sleep at night? That’s a rough deal with a quarterback.
“This guy is going to be a fascinating case study.”
* * *
Looking through binoculars from the Doak Campbell Stadium press box for the BC game last month, next to the real-deal NFL scouts, you can appreciate Winston’s talents much more than if you’re watching him on television. And spending an afternoon with Brown a month later confirms the opinion: Winston is a highly evolved quarterback for the college level, especially one in just his second season as a starter. He sees the game with tremendous vision and deftly navigates coach Jimbo Fisher’s subtly brilliant pro-style offense. Winston often throws the ball before the receivers have made their final turn. He almost always knows where a blitz is coming from and attacks the defense there. And despite an obviously ultra-competitive streak, he rarely forces the ball; instead, he’ll take what the defense gives him and check down to the back.
The BC game is a good window into Winston’s ability. The Eagles don’t have the most talented roster, but they’re fundamentally sound and they run a fairly sophisticated combination of coverages and pressures that change with every possession. Brown wanted to stop FSU’s big-play ground attack, including Winston’s running, and they wanted to make him drive the field to get his points—no big plays. In this, BC was highly successful: It held the Seminoles to their lowest scoring total in Winston’s two seasons. So to win, Winston would have to be patient and precise. Basically, he would have to operate like an NFL quarterback.
While Mariota may be able to recognize and react to NFL coverages just as well, it’s much easier to project Winston doing that on Sunday because he’s done it every Saturday.
Brown cues up the first third down of the game, third-and-four from the Seminoles’ 31-yard line in the first quarter. Three down linemen rush, as do the two inside linebackers. To Winston’s left the secondary is playing match man, with three defenders against three receivers. To his right three defenders are playing two receivers, including standout tight end Nick O’Leary.
“This I think bugged him because we’re doing some stuff that nobody else is really doing,” Brown says. “This is a trap coverage.”
That means exactly what it says. The coverage has the appearance of man-to-man, but in reality it’s much looser; one defender could drop off another to jump a route and trap the quarterback into a mistake.
Two Eagles come free on the blitz, and Winston senses the pressure (again, that skill of his). He begins to throw before O’Leary is out of his break just beyond the first-down marker. Winston gets blasted, but O’Leary makes a great one-handed, seven-yard catch to move the chains.
“Look at this throw,” Brown says. “He’s going to get hit. He knows it, and watch when he releases it. [O’Leary] doesn’t even have his head around. At the college level you’ll see that occasionally, but [Winston] does that a lot.”
It’s not a highlight-reel play, but it is an example of the high efficiency with which Winston operates. So is the next play, when BC drops into another trap coverage, this time with Cover Two principles, that basically eliminates the deep part of the field. Winston quickly takes the checkdown for 12 yards.
“He took the Cover Two beater,” Brown says. “We were in great shape down the field, so he took the checkdown. Good recognition on his part.”
Later on in the drive Brown is impressed with Winston on two seemingly innocuous plays starting from the nine-yard line: completions of two and five yards to underneath receivers on counter bootlegs that put the ball on the two and set up the first touchdown of the game.
“Those two red zone plays, you look at them and they don’t go very far, but guess what? They’re in the red zone,” Brown says. “That’s the difference between success and failure down there. They ended up scoring on the drive.”
On the first play of the second series Winston makes a rare mental mistake when he doesn’t see a minimally disguised safety blitz and runs a bootleg right into the blitzer. Still, he has the presence of mind to throw the ball away. Good management eliminates a negative play, and Winston makes up for the mistake. On the next play the Eagles bring a corner blitz from Winston’s right. After handling a high shotgun snap, Winston calmly connects with Greene on a 25-yard gain—right in the direction the corner came from.
“He recognizes that we bring the corner,” Brown says. “He goes and throws it to the X [receiver]. That’s pretty sensible [decision making] right there.”
Second-and-nine at the BC 38-yard line. “This is a different deal here that we’re giving him,” Brown says as he describes a six-way go, an alignment that could send six players rushing the quarterback if the tight end stays in to block. The tight end does not, and it’s a five-man pressure. A coverage mixup in the secondary allows the underneath crosser, freshman flanker Travis Rudolph, to take a five-yard pass and turn it into a 19-yard gain.
“[Winston] figured it out,” Brown says of the coverage mistake. “You can see he’s looking and sees the safeties overlap and takes the checkdown.”
On the next play Winston zips the ball though three defenders and into Greene’s hands, but he drops it in the end zone. “That pass was on the button, on time and to the right guy,” Brown says.
Next series, first play, the Eagles again throw a different coverage at Winston: two deep safeties with four underneath defenders plus a blitz. Winston calmly puts the ball in the void in the zone by throwing before Rudolph is out of his break. Gain of 25.
Two plays later, an interception. It’s not a mistake by Winston. He throws a perfect slant, but the pass is deflected on a great play by BC’s top cornerback, Justin Simmons, who’s covering Greene. “His guy could have made that play too,” Brown says. Winston threw a startling 17 interceptions this season, up from 10 as a freshman. “There are some halves where he seems to be sleepwalking,” the AFC general manager says. “Then he’s brilliant for long stretches. I don’t get it.”
These scenes will repeat over the course of the film session. Winston threading the needle. Winston taking the checkdown. Winston burning the Eagles’ blitz right where it came from. Winston standing tall in the pocket when he knows he’ll be hit. Winston holding off a sack until he can underhand a pass that goes for an incompletion instead of a drive-killing sack.
“He will fight you on every play until his last dying breath,” Brown says. “He’s the toughest guy to get on the ground that we’ve ever played. I’m just going to tell you, with a lot of guys, when you start hitting them, their s--- goes awry. This guy, it doesn’t. Early in the game last year we were hitting him, sacking him, banging him, and he just kept playing.”
Sounds a lot like Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in that respect. “Fair,” Brown says of the comparison. “Yeah, that’s fair.”
If Winston’s NFL evaluation were just about what’s on film, he’d be the no-doubt No. 1 pick. But you’d be hard-pressed to recall a QB prospect who makes such brilliant choices on the field and such poor ones off it.
The aspect of Winston’s game that Brown seems to respect the most is his football intelligence. It’s difficult to force Winston into a mistake; he recognizes coverages and pressures both before and during the play. On a half-dozen plays the Eagles showed one coverage presnap, then morphed into something else. This is a trait of the better defenses in the NFL, and they often beat up on weaker quarterbacks who don’t process what they’re seeing rapidly enough. Even when Winston doesn’t get a quick read on his intended target, he will stay with the play and find the right guy in time. That’s NFL quarterbacking, and it’s there on film.
That’s not so clearly the case with Oregon junior Marcus Mariota, the other top quarterback expected to declare for the draft. The Ducks rely more on schemes that cause confusion and create wide-open targets. While Mariota may be able to recognize and react to NFL coverages just as well, it’s much easier to project Winston doing that on Sunday because he’s done it every Saturday.
“He’s been trained very well by Jimbo,” says Brown. “It’s not like we were sitting there in one or two coverages. We played man free, Cover Two, a trap scheme, two high step to one high, played [Cover] zero and max blitzed him; we rushed six, played three deep, two under. I would bet we challenged him as much as anybody. When you evaluate his performance, there’s not a whole lot of mistakes.”
Asked if he sees Winston succeeding in the NFL, Brown says, “I do. He can make all the throws. I think he’s cerebral. Jimbo Fisher has a pretty good pro-oriented system. [Winston’s] competitive nature is off the charts. I watched a bunch of games where they’re behind 21 points, and he just kind of keeps rolling. That’s a hard demeanor to keep, when s--- ain’t going right.”
* * *
If Winston’s NFL evaluation were just about what’s on film, he’d be the no-doubt No. 1 pick—especially because, given his sloppy footwork and mechanics, he hasn’t come close to his ceiling yet. But it’s never just about talent when it comes to the NFL. And with Winston, that’s especially true. You’d be hard-pressed to recall a quarterback prospect who makes such brilliant choices on the field and such poor ones off it.
And it’s not just away from the facility where Winston’s demeanor is suspect. During the Boston College game Winston could twice be seen berating two young receivers. Both times Winston began the criticism on the field, continued it to the bench, at the bench and again after walking away for a minute. In both instances O’Leary and quarterbacks coach Randy Sanders had to intervene, gently. This was also the game in which Winston made contact with an official who was rightfully holding the snap to allow the defense to match up after a late Seminoles substitution. Winston wasn’t flagged, and the ACC called it “incidental and insignificant,” but former NFL vice president of officiating Mike Pereira wrote on foxsports.com that the contact with the referee should have resulted in an ejection. Finally, Winston engaged Fisher in several sideline discussions during which it appeared Fisher had to justify his next play call or game-management decision rather than have his QB simply take orders.
These are the types of interactions that NFL scouts watch intently when evaluating quarterbacks, for whom intangibles such as leadership and attitude are integral to success (ahem, Jay Cutler). Winston’s rah-rah innocence of 2013 has given way to a diva-type petulance that has gone unchecked by Fisher, Florida State, the ACC and the NCAA.
It is too late to correct that disruptive behavior in college. Soon it will be up to an NFL team. Can Jameis Winston be reined in? Will his personality mature to match his undeniable ability, or will he become one of those high picks that haunt a franchise? It’s going to be the most fascinating NFL case study in years.